I recently had the opportunity to tag along with two of the world’s leading bonefish researchers for a weekend of fishing Grand Bahama Island out of East End Lodge. Dr. Aaron Adams serves as the director of science and conservation for Bonefish & Tarpon Trust (BTT), a non-profit based in Miami whose mission is to conserve bonefish, tarpon, permit and their habitats. Also an experienced saltwater angler, Dr. Adams has authored three books on the subject.
“Ever since I was a kid I was interested in the why questions associated with fishing and catching fish, so science and fishing have long been intertwined for me,” Dr. Adams said, as he tied on a piece of tippet. “Back when I was doing a lot of research on coral reef fishes, I spent my off days fishing the flats. Over time, my work on coral reef fish waned, and I combined my passion for flats fishing with my scientific interests.”
A member of The Bahamas national rugby team, BTT’s Bahamas Initiative Manager Justin Lewis is from Freeport and travels throughout the islands leading BTT’s conservation efforts, which include tagging bonefish, identifying spawning sites, and working with partner organizations, such as Bahamas National Trust (BNT), on educational outreach.
“Being raised around the water, my passion for fishing and the ocean developed at a very young age,” said Lewis, as he poled us along a sand flat. “I first got started fly fishing off the beach near my family’s home for whatever could swim. As I got older, my passion for flats fishing and conservation grew. I’ve always had a particular fondness for bonefish.”
Lewis left The Bahamas for college, attending St. Francis Xavier University on the east coast of Canada, where he studied marine biology and public policy. During his undergraduate studies, he took part in a variety of conservation efforts back in the Caribbean, helping BTT with its bonefish tagging program and juvenile bonefish research. After graduation, Lewis continued his education across the pond, where he received a MSc in Marine Environmental Management from the University of York before returning to his home waters to conserve the bonefish fishery with BTT.
When Bonefish & Tarpon Trust was founded twenty years ago in response to the rapidly declining bonefish population in the Florida Keys, there was almost no published information on the life cycle of bonefish, including how, when and where they spawn. Since that time BTT has learned a great deal about this ecologically and economically important species, laying the groundwork for further research and conservation. Much of that progress has come about because of BTT’s involvement and partnerships in the Bahamas, with organizations such as BNT and The Nature Conservancy.
“With its abundant fish and healthy habitats, BTT long ago saw a dual purpose to conduct research in The Bahamas,” said Dr. Adams. “One, of course, was to contribute to flats conservation in The Bahamas. But most important to Florida Keys anglers, working in The Bahamas allowed BTT to learn more about bonefish ecology and at a faster pace than if the organization had only worked in the Keys. And now we are able to begin applying the knowledge gained in The Bahamas to Keys bonefish conservation.”
BTT provides the valuable data and information it gathers to its partner organizations and to the government’s resource management agencies, as the central goal of BTT in The Bahamas is to ensure that the flats fishery remains healthy. The opportunity to cast a fly to tailing bonefish on pristine flats draws thousands of anglers from around the world to the islands every year, generating in excess of $140 million annually. The catch-and-release fishery supports not only the lodges and guides, but entire communities, especially those in the Out Islands. In Andros, for example, flats fishing comprises a whopping 81% of the island’s total tourism expenditure. And in Grand Bahamas, The Bahamas’ second most populated island, the community of McLean’s Town, on the East End, relies on the steady stream of anglers to the area’s lodges. One need only look at the Bahamian ten-cent piece to understand the importance of bonefish to the nation: a pair of gray ghosts framed in laurels is minted on every ten cent coin.
Bonefish are also an integral part of the culture. The occupation of fishing guide is often passed through family lines, along with the valuable knowledge gained over a lifetime. As Bahamas Initiative manager, Lewis works closely with the guide community, who are on the front lines of conservation and assist Lewis in identifying critical bonefish habitat and spawning aggregations.
“Guides are the cornerstone of the flats fishing industry in The Bahamas,” said Lewis. “They have gathered a vast amount of knowledge about the fish and habitats they reside in. Combining this knowledge with scientific research has helped BTT to be successful in its conservation efforts in The Bahamas.”
With decades of combined fishing experience and bonefish research, Lewis and Dr. Adams are a dangerous duo on the flats. Their understanding of fish behavior, movement patterns and feeding habits, combined with their angling skills, set them apart from “laymen” anglers like myself. Dr. Adams pointed out that the shape of the holes in the sand can help you decide whether to fish a fly resembling a shrimp or a crab, staples of the bonefish diet—a mantis shrimp hole is round, while the burrow of a stone crab is more of an oval. When we snuck up on a school of tailers feeding their way across a flat, Lewis reminded me that catching bonefish on fly is all about reading the fish’s body language, which can help determine how to present and retrieve the fly. If the fish is moving quickly, lead it by several feet. If the fish is moving slowly and actively feeding, place the fly closer to its head. If the fish follows the fly, but doesn’t take it, try pausing the fly for a moment and then doing one long, slow strip.
“What many anglers don’t know,” Dr. Adams told me as we waded across a creek mouth, “is that the biggest bonefish in the bunch is often the last fish to leave the mangroves as the tide drops out. So it pays to be patient.”
Sure enough, on a falling tide later that day, Lewis masterfully caught a lone bonefish meandering down a mangrove shoreline. Once he landed the fish, he and Dr. Adams took measurements and then inserted beside the dorsal fin a tiny plastic tag coded with a unique ID number. This way, if the fish is recaptured, either by Lewis or a recreational angler (who can report the catch to BTT via the organization’s website) Lewis is able to determine how far the fish traveled from the location where he tagged it and how much it has grown. Since the tag-recapture program began in 2009, BTT and its collaborators have tagged more than 12,590 bonefish across Abaco, Andros, Eleuthera, Exuma, Grand Bahama and Long Island.
“The data we’ve collected has been critical to identifying bonefish home range habitats, spawning migration pathways and spawning locations so these habitats can be protected,” Lewis explained. “This valuable information has already contributed to the creation of six new national parks on Grand Bahama and Abaco to protect bonefish habitats, with the establishment of additional parks in the works.”
Recapture data has shown that bonefish have small home ranges. In fact, more than 70 percent of tagged bonefish are recaptured within one kilometer of where they were tagged, highlighting the importance of habitat protection at a local level. But the data, along with reports from guides, also shows that bonefish will leave the flats and travel long distances to spawn, meaning that it’s not just the flats that we must protect, but also the spawning sites and the pathways to reach them. We now know that bonefish spawn in deep water offshore, after first forming massive schools known as pre-spawning aggregations during the new and full moon cycles from late October through April. When the fish head offshore at night by the thousands, they gulp air at the surface, filling their airbladders, and then descend more than 200 feet. The best available scientific information suggests that when they swim rapidly back up toward the surface, the pressure change makes their airbladders expand, causing them to expel their eggs and sperm. Fertilization and hatching occurs in about 25 hours, after which their very unusual larvae, known as leptocephalus, drift in the open ocean from 41 to 71 days. When the larvae reach shallow, inshore sand- or mud-bottom bays, they metamorphose into tiny juveniles that look like miniature versions of their parents.
Threats to The Bahamas’ bonefish and their ability to successfully spawn include dredging along the spawning migration pathways, beach nourishment and other types of habitat degradation. And while netting bonefish is illegal, schools of bonefish are still targeted and are susceptible to being caught as bycatch in commercial nets. In addition to helping Bahamas National Trust establish more national parks to protect important bonefish home ranges and spawning sites, BTT is also at work restoring critical habitat. On the East End, BTT is partnering with BNT and the Bahamas government to remove an old logging road, which will restore proper water flow and fish access to a mangrove creek that has been fragmented for over 50 years.
Anglers can do their part for conservation by using proper catch and release methods and practicing ethical fishing, such as not fishing for bonefish on a flat where sharks are feeding. BTT is working with lodges in The Bahamas to educate anglers and the guide community about the best way to handle bonefish. Most important is to keep the fish wet, as holding a bonefish out of water for more than 15 seconds increases by six-fold the likelihood it will die after being released.
The flats ecosystem, that dynamic area where the sea meets the land, and salt and fresh water mix, is as enchanting as it is fragile. So too are the fish that make it their home, riding the tide onto and off of the flats, where they roam among the seagrasses, mangroves, marls and white sand. If you’re fortunate enough to catch a gray ghost, know that you are holding a special fish, whose very existence seems miraculous when one considers the poor odds it overcame to reach adulthood. Spawned in offshore depths, carried by the ocean’s currents, this fish drifted in larval form for well over a month, serendipitously bypassing predatory fish and birds and eventually reaching shallow, protected waters, where it continued its uphill battle to maturity over the course of many years, growing into a silver bullet capable of reaching line-peeling speeds of up to 40 mph, making it the seventh fastest fish on the planet. Now, for a few fleeting moments, your paths have crossed here, amid the wind, the sun and the sound of water lapping against the mangrove-fringed shore.
This fish, emblematic of an entire nation, is part of a fishery upon which thousands of people depend to support their families and communities and you are part of the equation. Handle it with care, because the future of this remarkable species rests with anglers, the guide community, BTT, its partner NGOs and the Bahamas government, all of whom are working together to conserve bonefish and their habitats for our generation and those to come.